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Ashford deemed 'unstoppable' by Lord Heseltine as it creates 7,500 jobs in 10 years and McArthurGlen designer outlet unveils expansion plans

By Chris Price

Ashford Borough Council leader Gerry Clarkson is a man struggling to mask his beaming pride.

He is recollecting a meeting at the Ebbsfleet Observatory in Swanscombe this summer chaired by political heavyweight Lord Heseltine.

The gathering of business leaders and local politicians aimed to discuss how best to create a garden city in north Kent, a flagship Budget policy of Chancellor George Osborne.

Ashford town centre. Picture: Countrywide Photographic
Ashford town centre. Picture: Countrywide Photographic

“I got up and told him about our commercial approach,” said Cllr Clarkson. “He looked around the room and said ‘Ladies and gentleman it is clear to me from what Gerry has said that Ashford is unstoppable’.

“He is a very astute politician and business person and for him to make a statement like that is quite encouraging.”

It is clear to see the reasoning behind the Conservative peer’s comments – and why Ashford was the only council invited to that meeting by Kent County Council.

In 10 years, 7,500 new jobs have been created in the town, a trend which looks set to continue.

This month, McArthurGlen revealed plans to double the size of its designer outlet on the edge of the town, creating 950 jobs.

The Ashford Designer Outlet will be extended
The Ashford Designer Outlet will be extended

Last year, John Lewis opened its 10th home store creating 125 jobs.

A few years before Waitrose launched a new supermarket and Bupa opened a care home.

From 2009 to 2012, more than 900,000 sq ft of employment space was built in the town.

“I really think Ashford is one of the most exciting places to be,” said Cllr Clarkson, who was chief executive of the Fire and Civil Defence Authority and used to run an engineering consultancy.

“But we are not complacent. There is a lot to do. We have some empty shops but they will sell.”

Ashford International Station
Ashford International Station

Of course, many put this success down to the town’s high-speed links to London.

It takes 37 minutes to travel from Ashford International to London St Pancras, while Paris Gare Du Nord is reachable in less than two hours.

Some 3.2m passengers use the station every year. Ebbsfleet carries just 900,000.

Yet the figures suggest Ashford is far from becoming simply a commuter town.

Employment is growing at 3.6%, twice the national average of 1.8% and higher than Kent’s 1.5%.

“It would be wrong to say HS1 is not one of the key factors behind the success but it is one of a number of factors,” said Cllr Clarkson. “We are Kent’s only international town because of our location. No other town in the UK can claim that.”

An artist's impression of how the market square at Chilmington Green might look. Picture: Michael Taylor
An artist's impression of how the market square at Chilmington Green might look. Picture: Michael Taylor

Cllr Clarkson scolds councils who have not settled on their local development frameworks – the plans which lay out goals for house and workplace building in the coming decades. He says Ashford has had a local plan in place for 25 years.

He said: “If someone applies to build something and you haven’t got a plan, you shouldn’t be able to refuse it. .”

While it is the largest borough in the South East, Ashford also has the smallest population at 121,000, perhaps a reason for the lack of opposition to new homes.

The council introduced space standards on the building of new houses, apartments and gardens, which developers must build to, without exception.

Ashford Borough Council leader Gerry Clarkson
Ashford Borough Council leader Gerry Clarkson

Cllr Clarkson added: “All the developers came to see me and said it would stop them building.

“I said it was non-negotiable and now developers are using the fact they build to our standards as a unique selling point. We make planning as easy as possible. We are about quality in Ashford, not just quantity.”

The plan is to build in urban areas on brownfield sites, except the controversial Chilmington Green development which would place 5,750 houses on agricultural land. That figure has been revised down from 7,000 through the council’s space standard rules.

So why has Ashford not taken its place among the UK’s internationally ranked towns and cities?

“It has not been sufficiently marketed and it has not identified its advantages – its unique position,” said Cllr Clarkson.

“Don’t you think it will be exciting to have people from France, Germany, Belgium and Russia here? I want Ashford to be an example of how you integrate and have an international town.”

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